Trump’s North Korea dilemma

In the wake of the Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase and after dropping a 2,100-pound “Mother of all Bombs” – MOAB – in Afghanistan, North Korea had threatened to test another nuclear weapon, her sixth test. In reaction, senior U.S. intelligence officials told the media that the U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea if they’re convinced that North Korea is about to perform a nuclear weapons test.

Now that Trump has shown that he has cojones and is willing to risk going to war with North Korea, the geopolitical chess game has changed direction. What happened at the summit meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort in Florida was one for the books. Trump told Xi as they were having dessert, “Mr. President, let me explain something to you. We have just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit by the way, unbelievable, from hundreds of miles away.” Trump said the Xi paused for 10 seconds and then asked the interpreter to please say it again. Then Xi told Trump, “Anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children and babies – it’s ok.” In a chess game, that was a brilliant end game: Trump checked Xi and Xi resigned to avoid a checkmate.

“We have a good chemistry,” Trump now said of Xi. Not too long ago, when he was campaigning for the presidency, Trump accused China of being a currency manipulator and a thief of American jobs. He said that China should no longer be allowed to “rape our country.” If elected, he promised to impose heavy tariffs on China and take her to court for shady trade practices.

But, ever the consummate dealmaker – or I might say, a wily wheeler-dealer — Trump flip-flops on the issues and went easy on Xi. He must have taken note of what Xi said at the start of their meeting, to wit: “There are a thousand reasons to get China-US relations right, and not one reason to spoil it.” Trump abandoned his position on U.S.-China trade, which gave Xi a sigh of relief. He did not declare China as a currency manipulator and the South China Sea and Taiwan were not discussed, as they would surely have caused some friction. Trump paid a heavy price for whatever concessions he got, if any. But they agreed to form a working group with a “100-day plan” to bolster American exports and reduce the US bilateral deficit.

China’s burden

It’s interesting to note that on April 5, on the eve of the Trump-Xi summit, the Chinese government-owned Global Times published China’s “bottom line” on the situation on the Korean Peninsula. It said that China would not allow a “hostile government” in Pyongyang. It also said that Beijing would “not tolerate a U.S. military push toward the Yalu River.” It did not then come as a surprise when Beijing deployed 150,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to the China-North Korea border at the Yalu River. This reminds us when hordes of Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River in October 1950 during the Korean War to stop the northward push of the United Nations (UN) forces under the command of Gen Douglas MacArthur. The Chinese intervention pushed the UN forces back and the war seesawed until it ended on July 27, 1953, when an armistice was signed. Technically, the two Koreas are still at war today.

Indeed, China hasn’t changed her position since the time of Mao Zedong, which is to protect and preserve the communist regime in North Korea. Let’s face it: Korean reunification under the existing South Korean government would not be palatable to the Chinese rulers. The best thing that the U.S. could hope for would be a regime change that would usher in a friendlier communist government like Vietnam is today. But would Xi agree to that? I don’t think so. Don’t be fooled by his affability and “soft power” approach to world economic dominance. But deep inside him, he is a dogmatic and hard-line communist in the mold of Mao.

Putin scared stiff

In the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Tomahawk cruise missile strikes in Syria must have scared the daylights out of him. It caught him flat-footed and dealt a humiliating blow to his ego. His inability to stop the strikes is a repudiation of Russia’s much-ballyhooed air defense system and proves that Putin is an unreliable ally. Indeed, the Tomahawk strikes diminished Putin’s image as a fearsome bully who uses nuclear blackmail to get what he wants. Not anymore. The new bully in the neighborhood is Trump. The difference between the two is: Putin is unpredictably predictable while Trump is predictably unpredictable. That makes Trump more dangerous than Putin.

And to show that Trump means business, he dropped the “Mother of all Bombs” – America’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb – on a network of fortified underground tunnels in Afghanistan that ISIS used to launch attacks on Afghan forces. The strike also killed at least 94 ISIS fighters.

On the European continent, Putin’s misadventures in Ukraine and Crimea might look like a geopolitical victory for him but are actually a big setback for him. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, Russia’s relations with the Eastern European countries — her former satellite states – were mutually economically beneficial. Now, these Eastern European countries, fearful of Putin’s aggressive behavior, have turned to their NATO allies for protection. The U.S. and several other NATO countries responded by sending thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks including heavy weapons to Poland and the three Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They formed a “wall of steel” along the border with Russia.

Kim Jong-un’s obsession

Trump’s slogan “Peace through strength” is finally put to a test. A few days after the Trump-Xi summit meeting, Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to sail to the waters off North Korea in response to North Korea’s planned nuclear weapons test, which was scheduled to coincide with the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea’s founder and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung last April 15. The occasion was celebrated with a parade showing a variety of offensive missiles. During the parade Kim threatened to annihilate the U.S. with what he called “game-changing” missiles. He vowed to “beat down enemies with the power of nuclear justice.”

Within hours after the parade, North Korea attempted to launch a ballistic missile and failed. “It blew up almost immediately,” an observer said. But the fact that North Korea tried to launch the missile in spite of warnings from South Korea and the U.S., is an indication that Kim is obsessed with making his country a nuclear power. It is estimated that North Korea may already have at least a dozen nuclear weapons, which she can use against South Korea, particularly targeting the huge U.S. base near the DMZ.

Some experts believe that North Korea could build a hundred nuclear weapons within five years. North Korea could then become a very dangerous threat to the peace and stability in East Asia. With that in mind, Japan and South Korea might decide to build their own nuclear capability. In particular, Japan could produce nuclear weapons if she wanted to. She has 47 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium, which is enough to make nearly 6,000 warheads like the one the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki. This huge cache was the by-product from reprocessing of spent uranium and plutonium used in Japan’s nuclear plants, which makes one wonder: Would Japan make nuclear warheads and use them if she were threatened with nuclear extinction by North Korea? Well, your guess is as good as mine. But I think your guess is: Yes, she would. Who wouldn’t?

The U.S. and China’s goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But for as long as Kim Jong-un is in power, that is not going to happen. And with North Korea fast-tracking her production of nuclear weapons and the development of land-based and submarine-launched medium- and long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching as far as the U.S., she could become a nuclear superpower within a decade. And this begs the question: Would the U.S. allow a rogue nuclear superpower to threaten not only the security of Japan and South Korea but the existence of America as well? Trump’s dilemma is that there is no easy solution to the North Korean problem. He might just bite the bullet to keep the peace in Asia-Pacific.